Coffee morning next week

Seems like it's been a while since we last had a hardware-ish coffee morning. Let's have one next week.

Thursday 28th May, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club (100 Leonard St).

Same as before: Super informal, just hanging out and chatting, bring your cross-stitch or circuit boards if you have em. If nobody turns up it'll just be me checking my email, and that's fine too.

So why has it been over a month since the last coffee morning? I've been hiking in Colorado for one thing.

But also I've been trying something new... does the coffee morning format transfer to other situations? This term, Durrell Bishop is running a course at the Royal College and he asked me if I'd like to get involved. I suggested that we try doing weekly coffee mornings for the students: A place to chat outside the studio, something we can invite others to, but not a crit and not a talk and not unrelated to work either. So we've been trying that.

It's risky, because the informality means no outcomes can be guaranteed. And anyway, is there any benefit to organising something like this, beyond what you get anyway from grabbing a cuppa in the canteen? Well I don't know, which is why experimenting with Durrell and his students is so cool.

At the back of my head, I'm wondering whether there's a commercial model for convening coffee mornings inside corporations. I don't really want to do trad consultancy again. But the idea of establishing a DMZ on the edge of a company... a place where serendipity can happen, over time... no talks and no audience, but catalytic conversations, convened once every couple of weeks for several months... I'm curious about whether that could work.

Anyway. See you a week on Thursday!

Where the wave finally broke

From Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas:

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of 'history' it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened . . . There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning . . . And that, I think, was the handle-that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting-on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark-that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

(Also, a 1997 interview with Hunter S. Thompson.)

Ben emailed me this quote the other day.

Filtered for hefting


Giant realistic cat head, with photos of it being worn (via @matlock).


Bacon by post: Cure & Simple.

Gosh there are tons of these subscriptions boxes.

This is the sharp end of - and this is how the Harvard Business Review puts it - why strong customer relationships trump powerful brands.

[digital technologies] allow more direct interactions with customers, bypassing expensive middlemen and reducing the cost of sales and marketing; they allow firms to optimize customer lifecycle management based on detailed data and analysis of customers' needs; they improve efficiency and quality across the value chain as a result of continuous customer feedback

Meanwhile the value of a brand is declining because purchasing decisions have become more fact based, and less brand-image based.


@herdyshepherd1, shepherd, author, and Twitter superstar. His new book on the Lake District is half autobiography, half history, and half manifesto for land and animals: The Shepherd's Life.

His story and some pictures.


Herdwick sheep are 'hefted'; which means they hold (without fences) to a place on the fell (mountain) because they are taught a sense of belonging by their mothers in their first summer. This stretches back countless centuries and has never been broken.

This is the bit where I make some awkward analogy between hefting and brand recognition/customer lifetime value.


Tempescope, an ambient weather display for the home that looks like a glass jar with actual weather happening in it. Fog, rain, etc.

Patch of Sky, a set of three Internet connected ambient lights, enabling you to share the sky above you in real-time with loved ones, wherever they are.

Filtered for doorways


The term bardo refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth.

also translated as "transitional state" or "in-between state" or "liminal state".

Liminality, from the Latin meaning "a threshold":

the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.

When you step through a door, the door has width -- a couple of inches. For a fraction of a second, you're not in/out but liminal.

Walking through doorways causes forgetting.

"Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an 'event boundary' in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away," Radvansky explains.

"Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized."


Photos of sea mountains.


To make Lemmon Cakes, a recipe from 1670, from the cookery book The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet: Stored with all manner of Rare Receipts For Preserving, Candying and Cookery. Very Pleasant and Beneficial to all Ingenious Persons of the Female Sex by Hannah Woolley.

The history of sugar in Europe.

During the 18th century, sugar became enormously popular. Britain, for example, consumed five times as much sugar in 1770 as in 1710.


Something interesting is happening: Uber, the world's largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world's most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world's largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.

Despite its name, I wonder whether this is the real common thread running through the sharing economy... there's nothing on the balance sheet.

So look at the Bring Your Own Device trend... maybe this is the same, workplace IT with no technology. So what about facilities with no offices, menswear stores with no clothes.

The realisation that the heart of business is the ops machine and not the assets -- orchestration not ownership. That's a valuable insight.

Take this trend, cross-breed it with the shift to subscription box companies (of which there are trillions because a company that takes advantage of life-term value can out-market one that doesn't when it comes to customer acquisition), plus fluid workplaces such as holacracy... where do we get? Don't know. On my mind. Feels like we're on our way somewhere.

Coffee morning 8

It's a bit last minute I know, but let's have another hardware-ish coffee morning this week!

Thursday 9th April, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club (100 Leonard St).

Why? It's sunny, I'm in the mood to hang out and chat about cross-stitch and hardware startups and distribution. Zero structure though, chat about whatever you fancy -- here's how it works.

If you've been thinking about coming to coffee mornings 1 thru 7 but haven't, bunk off work and come along to this one. It'd be lovely to see you.

(Reminders, as always, are sent to the coffee morning list.)

Raw thoughts on Amazon Dash

Amazon Dash... yup, makes sense. Give away light-weight Internet of Things gadgets to encourage purchase of fast-moving consumer goods. Tiny plastic buttons that allow for instant product ordering: Your entire house is now a shopping cart.

We worked on a bunch of similar stuff at Berg -- such as Cloudwash where purchasing washing powder was part of the machine itself, and some secret projects where the transactions and connectivity explored different configurations. It was my colleagues who spent most time figuring out the service design and all the mini design interactions -- but I was steeped in this for a year or two, so I figured I would dash out some notes...

Dash. Ho ho.

Look, a warning. I haven't proofread these notes so they might make no sense. And there's nothing about how the Dash is designed, or what this means for your strategy. Feel free to get in touch for a coffee if you want to talk about either of those aspects, or if anything in what follows rings a bell for you...

It makes economic sense

By putting the Dash Button in the home, it lowers friction to purchase and shifts the distribution channel to Amazon.

This is good for:

  • customer retention through reduced churn. You're a loyal Tide customer, but you've run out. Instead of running to the nearest store and grabbing whatever brand is on sale today, you hit the button
  • customer retention through reducing the replenishment time
  • switching to a low-cost distribution channel. Cost of sale is likely lower with Amazon or direct sales, versus physical retail that needs to cover in-store inventory and staff

You could probably make a pretty simple equation out of this, saying something like... it's worth it when:

revenue from selling N buttons + N1 * channel cost saving + N2 * margin on additional sales + value of effective marketing > development cost + server cost for 1 year + cost of producing N buttons

where N1 is the number of buttons used by existing customers who switch channels, and N2 is the number of buttons used to make new purchases.

Assuming you're giving these buttons away, and assuming you don't have access to the marketing budget, the relevant costs become:

  • how much do these buttons cost to develop (not much if you're Amazon, because you already have all the bits from your other products)
  • how much do these buttons cost to run (not much if you're Amazon, because you already have the back-end servers and the logistics)
  • how much do these buttons cost to produce -- the component cost has dropped sharply over the last year or two. Note that the Dash Buttons are small and use battery powered wi-fi... they fall out of the smartphone supply chain. Or to put it another way, these buttons are the peace dividend of the smartphone war

And when these costs fall enough, the question becomes: Do you reckon you can make a profit on the 2% of customers who will buy 5% more a year?

It's the new marketing

I brushed over the marketing benefits above, but let's not forget that we're enamoured with web-connected physical things. Internet of Things gadgets are novelty; brands that launched with Amazon will be pleased with the publicity.

Though... why not go with a Youtube video for the publicity, and not bother making the thing itself, like Evian's fridge magnet launching their water subscription service? It's a lot cheaper.

I can think of a couple of marketing benefits to actually making and distributing the button itself.

Advertising is changing. You need Adwords and Facebook ads to fish where the fish are... but come on, they're boring, they don't create the emotional impact of a full-page glossy magazine ad, or a great TV spot.

So, for me, these buttons are the first step to a new channel. Sure, they're utilitarian -- they order more consumables. But they also tell a story that this brand is there for me, it's in my home, it's at hand, on-demand. Products are people too and this button has a character... it's now up to us to create physical objects that have different characters, one that might be more suitable for high fashion, fragrance, whatever.

You need these different marketing channels because building awareness requires a drip-drip approach... a banner ad here, a Buzzfeed list there, a button on the fridge. A new advertising component.

E-commerce continues to grow at the expense of physical retail, and discovery in e-commerce continues to suck. Another way to think about the Dash Button is that it's doing the same job as a shelf-end promotion, or a BOGOF. This is a replacement for the lost world of point-of-sale discovery tricks, and it's in-home.

In a way, we're really seeing the future of marketing here. We've separated awareness (advertising) and distribution (stores) for so long, but it's no longer the way. When you get a Buy Now button in a tweet you're seeing ads and distribution merging, and the Button is the physical instantiation of this same trend.

In the future that Simon Wardley paints, this is a warning shot against the supermarkets, and in the future every product will carry a buy button. We're already in this world with smartphone apps: Because App Store discovery sucks, the best mode of distribution is word of mouth. The more downloads you already have, the more downloads you'll get. Which is why app publishers need to get their dirty mitts on your address book. Is this a future we'll see with consumable home products, too?

Why Amazon?

The costs of making the button dropped for Amazon before anyone else -- as I said above, they have the technology Lego bricks already, and the logistics available. But there are two other groups I've run into repeatedly who have looked seriously at the same concept

Traditional manufacturers of either FMCG or the kit that consumes it (that is, makers of washing powder and makers of washing machines). In 90% of cases, these manufacturers don't know how to speak with end consumers. They maybe know how to speak with consumers pre-sale... but they tend to outsource that to marketing agencies. But typically their customers are distributors and retailers, not end consumers.

This is a problem because the Dash Button isn't just a button, it's a communications channel. It's an app. It's push notifications. It's the update emails. Somebody needs to write that copy, somebody needs to manage the feedback, somebody needs to choose when to do a price promotion.

For most manufacturers, there's not a group in the company that knows how to do this, so making the Button isn't an engineering challenge -- it's a difficult corporate re-org where the voice that would advocate that strategy isn't even present in the leadership team.

There's a particular problem for the device manufacturers, as opposed to the manufacturers of the consumables. Connectivity of shared objects means back-end servers, and these cost money to run. When you're a big company, you think via the profit and loss. A connected machine which just offers neat user features (e.g. a notification when your wash cycle has finished) doesn't make sense on the P&L: it just means you have to knock points off your margin when you first sell it, to put cash aside to keep the service running. The only way connectivity makes sense is to align the recurring costs with some kind of recurring revenue.

In 2015 that means creating a sales channel for consumables... which the white goods manufacturers don't have available to them. Ink-jet printer manufacturers do. And we won't be stuck as this stage forever. Give it 12 months, and you'll have a microwave with in-app purchase. I'm only half kidding.

The marketing agencies get it. But marketing agencies are organised (have teams; do sales; are paid) around campaigns. Campaigns have a beginning and an end. In the web world, we're used to the KPIs of ongoing services (acquisition, activation, retention, etc): we measure Monthly Active Users. That's what you need to build a new sales channel. But it's not how you run a successful campaign.

And besides, marketing agencies need to do something different every quarter -- they don't build up a tight ops machine of technology and logistics. Building the Dash Button isn't, for them, just the next easy thing to do.

On my list of startups I would do - which is way too long and honestly, mostly awful - is an agency that offers to speak with customers post-sale.

So the manufacturer of Break Maker X would get us in to run the communications channel with the customers... either a button on the machine or just the app. And we'd all come from the web world, so it would be all A/B testing emails, looking at the button stats, partnerships with legendary bakers to sell artisan yeast, all that nonsense. We'd run it on a retainer basis, and eventually get bought by one of the big networks for a billion quid.

By the way, there is one group I've met who do (a) know how to have a customer conversation, and (b) have an incentive to cross-sell and up-sell on that channel. And that's the retailers, especially the retailers who already have a logistics network and run post-sales activities such as an extended warranty programme.

In the UK, that means John Lewis/Waitrose -- I was half expecting to see this button come from them, first. But they don't have "retail platform" in their DNA like Amazon.

And there are some manufacturers who understand that the product is the channel. But I can't say who because I'm still under NDA.

Last thoughts

I have to say, the Amazon Dash Button makes a ton of sense to me, as the near future of the Internet of Things, in a way the internet fridge never has.

I've always said that if I was making an internet fridge, I'd just make a fridge magnet that ordered milk. Or, better, a tiny talking Fridgeezoo pet that - when tapped - would text both me and my wife "we're out of milk!"

It's that shared use that makes this button really great. Smartphones are still stuck in the Personal Computer era... but my shopping list isn't personal. We live with flatmates, families, and friends. We can hack it -- at home we use shared Reminders on iPhone for the weekly shopping. But my online grocery order is associated with a single user account. It seems dumb; the button fixes that.

It's the ability for some kid in the household to say "hey, need more toothpaste" that leads to the button requiring wi-fi: Bluetooth is cheaper, but it would need a paired smartphone around.

And I am curious to see how it all works. The service design is complicated... without a screen, or any feedback, maybe your order is already on the way because somebody else hit the button, but how do you know? Sure the button automagically doesn't place a repeat order until the delivery is made, but what about more complex orders, or what if what you want is out of stock? Ultimately, this'll do for 80% of the cases, which is more than enough.

And then - for the rest - there's the Dash Replacement Service, Amazon's button-to-logistics technology all wrapped up, and ready to be integrated into whatever product you're creating. I see Quirky are building this replenishment service into the device itself:

a new line of smart appliances including an artisanal pour-over coffee machine, a baby formula maker, and a pet food dispenser. Each appliance will measure remaining consumable supplies and place an order using DRS before running out.

DRS is the best bit. Can you imagine what the life-time value is, for Amazon, if [white goods manufacturer] bake this into a washing machine, an item with an 11 year replacement cycle?

Where next

We're seeing the various stacks line up to own the smart home ecosystem:

  • Apple... offer Homekit to chip makers and device manufacturers, make every product in the home a smartphone peripheral. We'll make it easier to get to market, but only if you commit to us.
  • Google... with Nest establishing a beach-head, go for a data and orchestration play, providing feature differentiation. I wouldn't be surprised to see a Homekit-like play.
  • Samsung... leading the charge for the white goods manufacturers with SmartThings and the open ecosystem it promotes.
  • Amazon... end-to-end technology, combining both hardware connectivity through to back-end servers, payments, and logistics. Give it a year, then make the underlying chips available to any developer.

I know the Dash Button feels utilitarian -- but to my mind it's also eminently sensible, and executed in exactly the right way. I like it. If it does well, it'll make possible connected devices which are less utilitarian. I'll like that even more.

Books read March 2015

By date finished...

Some lines that stuck with me from Berger:

The animal scrutinizes him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension.

an animal's life, never to be confused with a man's, can be seen to run parallel to his. Only in death do the two parallel lines converge and after death, perhaps, cross over to become parallel again

As I say, I'm no scientist, but I have the impression that scientists today, when dealing with phenomena whose time or spatial scale is either immense or very small ... are on the point of breaking through space-time to discover another axis on which events may be strung


Some lines that got me in McPhee, the first about the Colorado river, the second on Lake Powell:

he quoted Edith Warner: "'This is a day when life and the world seem to be standing still -- only time and the river flowing past the mesas.'"

The Utah canyonland had been severed halfway up by a blue geometric plane, creating a waterscape of interrupted shapes, spectacularly unnatural, spectacularly beautiful.


I can't help myself but point my finger at these conjunctions. Narrow Abyss. Discover Another Axis. Interrupted Shapes.

Filtered for rules and otters


Steve Coast on rules.:

And so, with more rules we have solved most of the problems in the world. That just leaves the weird events left like disappearing 777’s, freak storms and ISIS. ... Ultimately, this is why the world is getting weirder, and will continue to do so. Now with global media you get to hear about it all.

And: everything that has ever happened has happened in the last decade or less.


There's a zoo in Japan where you can shake hands with an otter.

More pics.

iCPooch, a video conferencing device and remote treat dispenser for pets.

Project began at Startup Weekend (great mission -- I'm a trustee of the European arm). Inventor was 14 years old.

A dog that texts selfies.

Charles Mingus, jazz legend, literally wrote the book on how to train your cat to use the toilet.


We don't have a written constitution in the UK, but occasionally habit and precedent gets collated and scribbled down. In 2010, the operation of government was set out in the Cabinet Manual. For procedure nerds, it's a fascinating read.

Section 2 is about elections and The principles of government formation -- especially interesting because of the upcoming general election. Also I love the writing: The tone is colloquial, plain, and straightforward. But you can tell every word is chosen with care, every "should," every "expected." With a thousand year history, our system of government needs to balance what works with an openness to exceptionality.

Today we're entering purdah, the period of self-denying ordinance from the civil service.

See also, Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice.


The Hammersmith and City line, including a picture of the 1908 White City exhibition. Gosh.

Filtered for Monday mornings


An LED jacket for sausage dogs. Back Disco Dog on Kickstarter.

If your dog runs too far away and the connection is lost, the vest will show an automatic "LOST DOG" message

Best video.


There are eleven Sikh gurus -- the 11th, Final and last, eternal living guru took leadership in 1708, and is the community itself, the Khalsa:

the temporal leadership of the Sikhs was passed on to the Khalsa with the bestowed title of "Guru Panth" and spiritual leadership was passed on to the Guru Granth Sahib [the central religious text]

Guru Gobind Singh the 10th guru: All the Sikhs are enjoined to accept the Granth as their Guru. Consider the Guru Granth as embodiment of the Gurus. Those who want to meet God, can find Him in its hymns.

I wonder what this kind of metempsychosis feels like from the perspective of the guru -- to awaken as a text; frozen mid-thought, only alive when in communion with other minds.


The brain is electric. Transcranial magnetic stimulation works by stimulating bits of your brain with a whopping great magnet.

Zap your frontal lobe, it can make you savant at drawing cats (New York Times, 2003.)

It's loud too. Magnets eh.

Zap your motor cortex, your arm jumps. Quinn Norton on neuro-engineering (Wired, 2009):

A few inches over my ear is the part of my brain that controls my hand and arm. Schneider holds the coil there and activates it. The muscles in my scalp contract automatically, and it stings. My hand is jumping with each loud snap from the TMS machine.

I remember Quinn telling me about this experience... what stuck with me was her experience with free will. If you zap your muscles, they twitch despite yourself, but you can resist it.

But when you zap your neurons, you don't resist: you change your mind.

Hold your arm down. Zap. [Arm moves.] Why did you move your arm? I wanted to.

So I look at all this augmented reality nonsense and it all looks quite distracting.

And so I figure: What about a transcranial magnetic stimulation helmet, with Google Maps inside? That way your can check your email and Skype your mum, while the Walking-Down-The-Street Hat takes care of the tedious job of moving your legs, and collision-detecting your way around obstacles like buses and humans.

C'mon Google, sort it out.


I made a slo mo video of a bee yesterday -- that ethereal hooting you can hear in the background - turn it up, it's very quiet - is birdsong.

9 Beet Stretch is Ludwig van Beethoven's 9th symphony stretched to 24 hours, with no pitch distortions. It's broadcast online continuously: Listen now.

Recorded by the Huygens probe, the sound of the winds of Titan, largest moon of Saturn.

Coffee morning and the business onion

Hardware-ish coffee morning yesterday was weird... I missed a conversation about knitting. I got a short demo of Made By Many's Hackaball - which has just blown through its Kickstarter goal CONGRATULATIONS - but missed the main discussion. Matt from Speakset was talking about their super simple videophone for old folks, but I got dragged off elsewhere halfway through that chat. Laura was talking about energy, and honestly I could have spend an hour rambling about how Apple could use their big solar farms to make a vertically integrated consumer power offering... but I got distracted about something else. And with Blaine, I think we were about to have a breakthrough moment figuring out how to put micropayments at the protocol level of the web, and what new features we could offer, but by then my head was too full.

I hope everyone else had a good time :) Thank you for coming Alessandra, Matthew H, Matthew L, Tom T, Blaine, Tom A, Abby, Ben, Matt, Anna, James, Josh, Martin, Max, Laura, and Melissa!

So the gestalt for me is route to market.

It's a bugbear of mine that we've ceded the future of the web to advertising. And you know, thinking about what would happen if we started to charge for content on the web... it doesn't feel like it would work. Products on the web spread virally across social networks, producing random clicks that tease you into greater engagement. This is true for apps and articles.

And paying money inhibits virality. So there always has to be a free tier, to get as many of your eyeballs to infect as many more eyeballs as possible. Or it's totally free and there's indirect revenue -- you sell the data, or sell ads.

This, it turns out, is the failure mode with "the product is the marketing" philosophy: Now we don't separate out acquisition marketing into a different effort, we need every single one of our product users to be a shill. The route to market is right through your friends list.

Then I was looking at Hackaball which is a smart and responsive ball that children can program to invent and play games -- and this is great for a bunch of reasons, but primarily (for me) because behind it is the digital agency Made by Many (where Melissa is from), and that's terrific, that they've got the capabilities to design, launch, and then manufacture a Bluetooth-connected product, because that means they can bring those capabilities to all their clients. Gosh.

But educational products always confuse me slightly, because kids use them, but kids don't pay for me, and so the way the product is talked about isn't targeted at them. Like, I remember being seven. On a good day. Mostly I don't even remember being 30. But when I do remember being seven, I remember being into fun and cool and what my friends have... not learning. The route to market is not what makes the product good.

And with Speakset - which, again, is awesome - the customer is not the user. User: old people. Customer: Care providers.

So the way you design the product to best take it to market is not the same process to make it great for its users.

Is this a bad thing? Of course it isn't. Speakset will improve the lives of its users. It can only do that if it reaches lots of users. The best way to reach lots of users is via care providers.

But but but. One of the reasons I like Apple is that the proposition is clear. I give them money for hardware. I am the customer and the user both. They pay - separately - for marketing to tell me about the hardware. There's no misalignment of interests where they want to push the hardware into my hands so that they can make money out of selling usage data, or something.

Now I'm not going to claim that Apple are selfless angels, always acting in my interest. Far from it.

But when I've been sketching out business models for startups recently (which I have, a bunch), and those business models have been complicated with lots of actors having lots of different interests, I've been trying to draw them as a business onion. Where the core is a perfect knot of aligned interests of customer, user, and marketing, everyone acting in a way that supports revenue break-even, growth, and great product. Maybe not any profit yet. That's the next layer of the onion: More aligned interests, but this is where the profit is. And then maybe another layer, with a more complicated ecosystem play.

Never making a tradeoff between layers. Never saying: Well, we'll make a loss on product sales here because we'll make it up by selling the data over the customer lifetime. Ugh. Misaligned interests. Dirty onion.

I'm rambling. Business onion.

Next coffee morning

Let's do another coffee morning in 3 weeks... Thursday April 9th, same bat-place, same bat-channel.

I'll send a reminder to the announce list nearer the time -- you can subscribe here.